6. Collections Care

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Courtesy of the Modern Records Centre, reference: MSS.675/5/5(1)
Conservation and Preservation

The principles of Collections Care of archives do not differ greatly from those in the museums sector. These include keeping collections in secure, clean, dry, and pest-free storage areas, protected from light, pollution and dust by suitable packaging. Custodians should be familiar with, and users trained in, appropriate handling techniques, to avoid causing damage. There are very detailed published standards for collections care, some of which are not practical for many small or voluntary organisations to put into practice, but a range of simple, pragmatic actions can make a positive difference.

Benchmarks 3.0 Conservation Planning for Archives, Libraries and Museums is the latest version of a self-assessment checklist, widely used in the museums, archives and specialist libraries sectors. It sets out clear, realistic and measurable levels of performance for the care of collections. The benchmarks are based on the appropriate Standards. The Benchmarks can be downloaded for free in pdf and xls formats at http://www.ncs.org.uk/benchmarks3.php . The pdf version is good for reference purposes, while the xls allows you to enter your self-assessment and automatically calculates summary data. The completed assessment provides a snapshot of how well you are currently performing, and can act as a useful tool for future planning and prioritising, and for managing risks.

The document is divided into nine sections: Policy, Conservation Planning, Buildings, Storage, Cleaning & Pest Management, Environmental Management, Handling and Use, Digitisation & Surrogacy, and Emergency Preparedness. Under each heading there are elements of Good Practice and Best Practice, against which you can score yourself as met, partly met, or not met, and there is space to add your own comments.

The British Library has produced a series of guides on aspects of Collections Care, which can be freely downloaded at https://www.bl.uk/conservation/guides . Issues covered include: Basic Preservation; Care for Damaged Books; Care for Bookbindings; Cleaning Books and Documents; Using Library and Archive Collections; Managing the Environment; Pests in Paper-based Collections; Mould Outbreaks; Preservation of Photographic Material; Copying Library and Archive Materials; and Salvaging Collections. There is also strategic advice on creating a Preservation Policy; Funding for Preservation and Conservation Projects; Storage Furniture; and Moving Library and Archive Collections.

The British Library also has basic advice on storing books, photographs, newspaper cuttings at https://www.bl.uk/conservation/advice

English Heritage has produced a useful identification poster for the insect pests most often found in museums and historic houses. It is available in pdf format at https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/siteassets/home/learn/conservation/science/serpentine/insect-pests-historic-houses-poster.pdf

Modern media, whether photographic, audio-visual, or digital, present new challenges for custodians in terms of long-term storage and preservation. The Religious Archives Group has clearly summarised current advice at https://religiousarchivesgroup.files.wordpress.com/2020/02/section-3-modern-media.pdf

Conservation and Preservation

Books, documents and photographs are made of organic materials which are affected over time by both internal chemical damage caused by their gradual decay and physical damage caused by poor handling and storage. There is an enormous range of writing materials, inks and binding, which interact in different ways with chemicals and water, and which require specific techniques in order to mitigate or repair damage.

Conservation of archival items is a very specialist task best carried out by professionals, and can be expensive because of the materials and equipment required, and the time it takes to carry out the often delicate work. Because of the costs, items selected to be conserved will often have to be prioritised according to factors such as the degree of damage, financial value, significance, popularity with researchers, or intended use in exhibitions.

A key principle of modern conservation is that all repairs should be non-intrusive and reversible. This is because improved techniques and materials are continually being developed. Well-meaning but botched repairs can end up causing more damage in the long-run. For example, a mistake often encountered is the use of adhesive tape to repair ripped paper – it will eventually dry out and fall off, leaving a dark, possibly still sticky, stain that cannot be removed.

Conservation work usually concentrates on making an item useable rather than cosmetically attractive. The amount of work carried out will vary according to the intended purpose: so that the item can be digitised, handled by researchers, or placed in an exhibition.

The Institute of Conservation hosts an online register of conservators at http://www.conservationregister.com/ which can be searched by specialism, such as paper conservation, and which also contains guidance on choosing and working with a conservator. The Institute’s Book and Paper group https://icon.org.uk/groups/book-paper can provide lists of specialist book and paper conservators. Your local archive office may have a qualified conservator on staff who can carry out external commissions, or may be able to point you in the direction of someone suitable. Some additional advice on working with conservators can be found on the British Library’s website at https://www.bl.uk/conservation/advice .

Professional advice should always be sought if you discover an infestation of mould or insects in your collection.

Modern conservation practice emphasises the importance of prevention of further damage (preservation), rather than carrying out extensive repair. This is something that we can all contribute towards, with minimal training and experience.

Preservation involves a range of actions intended to minimise damage to documents. It can include:

  • Removing extraneous packaging and accessories, cleaning items and checking their condition during the Accessioning or Cataloguing processes. These are likely to be the only occasions when you handle and examine an entire collection and can help to prevent long-term issues. Actions can include carefully removing items such as: staples, paper clips and bulldog clips which can rust (brass paper clips are a long-term alternative); elastic bands which can perish and stick to paper; any dried adhesive tape if it will come off without causing any damage; plastic wallets and file covers that may contain chemicals; spring bindings, lever-arch files and ring binders which have parts that could rust; insignificant envelopes, brown paper packaging, string and plastic bags. It is important to retain any information which is written on existing packaging that you are discarding, such as titles, addresses and postmarks, as it might be significant. The opportunity should also be used to clean off any dirt (soft brushes and sponge erasers are best for this) and check items for mould, damp or pest infestation, isolating any items that seem affected so that they can be treated by a professional and not contaminate other items.
  • Packaging to reduce exposure to light and dust, and offer physical protection [see Section 5: Storage above].
  • Minimising the risk of threats such as theft, fire, flood, pests, mould and extremes of temperature and Relative Humidity [see Section 5: Storage above].
  • Careful handling to avoid unnecessary damage [see Section 7: Access below]. The handling principles should be followed by staff and volunteers as well as external researchers, and in all areas of your building including storage and reprographics. This will help to prevent avoidable damage to the items in your care.
  • The creation and use of surrogate copies. This used to be by means of photocopies and microfilms/microfiche, but these days it is primarily achieved through digital images. These can be viewed online via a website, or offline via a computer, and easily shared by email, file-sharing application, memory stick or CD/DVD. Ideally, this means that the original documents rarely need to be used again, reducing handling and the potential for further damage. Preservation needs should, therefore, be one factor in deciding the priorities of a digitisation programme [see Section 9: Digitisation below].

This guidance links to Section 2.4 (Collections Care and Conservation) of the Archive Service Accreditation Standard.

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Next section: 7. Access

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